Listening and Hearing vs Understanding

November 10, 2012

We have all experienced the phenomenon where we have tried to explain something to an individual who appears to be paying full attention. The individual was alert and nodded many times giving the impression of understanding. Later on we found that the individual internalized almost none of the information we were trying to convey. This article explains why this happens and offers some antidotes.

To internalize a message, one must not only pay attention, but the information must sink into the brain enough for recall and action. Listening can be happening even though there is little comprehension. A typical example of this occurs when dealing with two people who have different primary languages.

I noticed this phenomenon often when working with technical people in Asia. They were able to understand English, so we used that for communication. They would nod and give verbal cues (like “uh huh”) when I talked, but later would not be able to recall the meaning. They were being polite and did not want to upset me, so they took in what they were able to without internalizing the message.

Here is a gag from the famous erstwhile Goon Show on BBC. The dialog that illustrates the problem is between Minnie and Henry, an old feeble couple:

Henry: Minnie, Cambiar las sábanas en número 23.
Minnie: What’s that Henry? I can’t understand you.
Henry: Oh geesh. I said, “Cambiar las sábanas en número 23.” Now, Minnie, did you understand me that time.
Minnie: Yes! You said, “Cambiar las sábanas en número 23.”
Henry: Very good! Well then, why don’t you do it?
Minnie: What does it mean, Henry?

There are many methods to help determine if a person has internalized a message, but each one has the potential to deceive or annoy either party. Here are six ways to do it along with the caveats for each method:

1. Repeat the information – Describe the same information paraphrasing yourself so the listener hears the instruction twice but with a different style. If the instruction involves an action, then a demonstration may help. If there is an abstract concept, then using the VAK model will help. This is where you frame the information in a way consistent with the listener’s primary channel of taking in information (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic). This repetition style can feel pretty cumbersome to the speaker and the listener, but having a real verification is the most secure way of determining if the person listened, heard, and understood the instructions.

2. Look for body language – If someone has good eye contact and following skills (like grunting, nodding, or saying “uh-huh”) you have a good indication the person is paying attention. If the person is texting or otherwise gazing off into space with a blank look, you should assume little information is being internalized until you confirm otherwise. But paying attention does not guarantee understanding, so you can be fooled.

3. Ask a question – This method assumes the person has heard and internalized the content. By asking a simple question, you can get more information about the level of communication going on, but it is also not sufficient because of the phenomenon described above with Minnie. The person may be able to recite the words, but not really understand their true meaning.

4. Parrot the information – Have the other person repeat back the essence of your message. Here you are requesting the person do “reflective listening.” This is an excellent way to test the level of understanding, but it can be annoying, especially if you have a lot of information to convey. One antidote in the case of instruction is to get the person to actually do the task.

5. Ask for a demonstration – if the information is an actionable instruction, like how to adjust a carburetor, then you can ask the individual to show you the process you just described.

6. Observe the person over time – To get a true reading of the level of understanding, the best method is to monitor what the person does for several repetitions after the information was shared. The caveat here is that if the person does not do the activity right, it could be a motivation problem rather than a failure to understand.

7. Write it down – Having a written set of instructions or a check list is an obvious way to enhance the information transfer process. Multiple exposures to the same information using different modes will make the information stick better, and a written document can be referred to anytime in the future if memories start to fade.

When addressing a group, you will have different levels of understanding all around the room. One person may grasp 95% of your meaning while another may understand only 5% of what you intended to convey. The distraction factor will be different from person to person. One individual may appear to be listening, but he is daydreaming about something completely separate from your conversation. On the flip side, a person may be making little eye contact and multitasking, like texting a friend, but actually be listening carefully to your information. How do you know who got the message and who did not?

There is no 100% sure way to confirm people got the message unless you want to devise some kind of written or online verification test. For extremely important instructions, like some kind of emergency or medical procedure, it would be wise to go the formal route. For unimportant topics, like which pizza box has the pepperoni, the need to confirm the message was understood is less important.

Good communication involves work. It is not wise to just expect people to internalize some instructions fully based on just one verbal description. It is imperative to have a verification process in place that will ensure full understanding. The extra time and effort are well worth it because there will be far fewer disappointments.


Learn Body Language

June 3, 2012

What is the most frequent employee complaint on Quality-of-Life surveys conducted in organizations? It is not enough effective communication (Chilingerhan, Credit Union Times, June 22, 2011). That is frustrating to managers and leaders who spend a lot of time and energy trying to communicate well. It turns out that nearly all of us have been saddled with a significant gap in our personal education. Most of us have never taken a course on how to read body language.

It is well known that humans communicate more through body language and tone of voice than they do with the words used to send messages (Mehrabian, A. 2009 “Silent Messages: A Wealth of Information About Nonverbal Communication”). It would be smart for all of us to take several courses in school on reading and controlling body language. Unfortunately most people are never exposed to formal training in this vital skill.

I find the topic of body language to be incredibly interesting, and I teach it in all my classes. I am an avid student myself trying to learn more all the time. I believe knowing this “language” is vital because, like it or not, we are sending hundreds of messages to others all the time that give them the opportunity to correctly or incorrectly decode our thoughts and intentions.
On the receiving side, we are bombarded with conscious and subconscious cues coming from other people. If we are not sensitive to the meaning being communicated, then we can take actions or make statements that are unwise, insensitive, or just plain dangerous.

It is relatively easy to get an education in body language if one is interested. There are numerous books on it and many good video disks that can illustrate the complexity. One of my favorite treatments is a DVD called “Advanced Body Language,” by Bill Acheson (www.seminarsonDVD.com). There are also many short Youtube videos that can help as well. Just go to Google and type “body language” for a full array of insightful help. Many of these resources are fun because they frequently lampoon the missed or mixed signals we sent to each other.

It is important to take the context and pattern of body language into account when we try to interpret meaning, For example, one typical piece of body language is when a person is talking and he puts his finger up to the side of his nose. That is generally thought to be a sign of exaggerating or lying, but it could just mean that the person has an itch. In fact, in Bill Acheson’s video, he makes frequent gestures with a finger to the side of his nose. It is a habitual gesture for him, and he does it unconsciously. Imagine, a full time expert on body language giving an ambiguous signal like that roughly every five minutes. It demonstrates two points 1) do not interpret all signals literally, and 2) you are often not conscious of the body language signals you are sending out.

The point I am making here is that if you are not studying and learning all you can about body language, then your education is incomplete and your communication is hampered. Get online and start learning all you can about the signals we send each other. Become sensitive to the cultural differences in body language because each culture has a unique set of signals that need to be factored into any dealings.

Do not take every piece of body language as a literal signal. Rather, look for patterns that can explain what is behind the words. Consider the context around the body language signal so that its meaning is more precise. You will find yourself becoming a lifelong student of body language, and your level of communication, both going out and coming to you to be vastly richer.